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A Senate Compromise on the VA Scandal: A Crisis Compels Collaboration

By Jason Grumet

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

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The finger-pointing in the Veterans Affairs (VA) scandal has been bipartisan. Thankfully, the same is holding true in the initial search for solutions.

Things didn’t look so good just over a week ago. Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki offered his resignation in the wake of two brutal reports outlining systemic failures in his agency. And the piling-on began from both sides of the aisle. Democratic Kentucky Senate nominee Alison Lundergan Grimes was soon pointing out that she was the first candidate from her party to call for the retired four-star general to step aside. Republican Speaker of the House John Boehner was also turning up the heat. Insisted Boehner, “We’ll hold the president accountable until he makes things right.”

But the grotesque failures in our veterans’ health care system have been allowed to fester for decades, under both Democratic and Republican leadership in the White House and Congress. Given this reality of this shared responsibility and the true life-or-death stakes involved, the VA situation cried out for a return of a quintessentially American tradition: leaders reaching across the aisle to address and solve challenging problems together.

The good news: that’s exactly how a bipartisan group of United States Senators – led by a true political odd couple – has responded.

Former Armed Services Ranking Member Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) and current Veterans’ Affairs Chairman Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), who caucuses with the Democrats, led negotiations producing a compromise to rush aid to underserved veterans. The bill hammered out by the two Senators would meet several Democratic priorities – providing the VA with around $1 billion of funding to lease new medical facilities and authorizing the VA to spend $500 million of its budget to hire additional doctors and nurses. But the legislation also includes a two-year pilot program favored by conservatives that would allow veterans to see private doctors if they suffer long wait times or live far from a VA facility and authorizes whatever mandatory spending may be needed to provide veterans with the necessary care.

While the bill is without doubt a bipartisan success story, the potentially significant cost of its reforms is important to consider but difficult to estimate due to uncertainty over their duration and open-ended scope. The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office’s (CBO) preliminary estimate stated that the cost of the pilot program would be $35 billion over the first two years with costs rising to as much as $50 billion per year if fully implemented and extended. In comparison, the VA currently spends $44 billion annually on veterans health care. Given the congressional track record for ending such efforts, an extension is not inconceivable.

The House also acted last week in a strong bipartisan fashion, unanimously passing a similar outside-care program, which would be subject to federal appropriations rather than mandatory spending. In particular, CBO estimated that $620 million will be made available to the VA through the program’s scheduled 2016 termination, but any additional funding beyond that amount would require action by congressional appropriators. Presumably, if fully implemented, the provision’s cost would be roughly in line with the Senate legislation.

Notwithstanding the budgetary impact of the reform, its bipartisanship is significant. Especially noteworthy were some comments from Senator Sanders: “I would have written a very, very different bill. Right now we have a crisis on our hands, and its imperative that we will deal with that crisis.” He indicated that he hoped to return later to pursue some of his other priorities. In other words, sharply partisan legislators were willing to follow another tradition of America’s greatest leaders: fight for what they wanted – but accept what they could get in the name of progress and come back to fight another day.

It’s the spirit in which great statesmen and women of the past won two World Wars and the Cold War, responded to the Soviet challenge in space, fought racial injustice and established and preserved the safety net. The hope is that the search for lasting, bipartisan solutions to the VA crisis will continue – and that we will be spared show-trial hearings and the exploitation of grieving family members to score political points on cable news. Perhaps the initial compromise could instead be followed up with a series of sober investigative sessions – some of them actually behind closed doors to ensure contemplative deliberation – involving impartial fact-finding and clear analysis by experts aimed at arriving at workable prescriptions.

All Americans deserve good, professionally managed government resulting from thoughtful debates that bring forth the utmost that both parties have to offer. But no one deserves it more than those who have put their lives on the line to defend our freedom. Inspired by their sacrifice, Senators Sanders and McCain appear willing to put aside pure political calculations and demonstrate that they can work together in the national interest. It’s a start.